The True Story of a Conservative Refugee
Trigger Warning: This is a 100% true story. No names have been changed to protect anyone. You may be disturbed. But I will not lie to you.
On April 23, 2016, I declared my independence. The towers of the university where I work reflected the orange glare of L.A.'s sunset. It was Saturday, but I'd driven all the way to campus to do something, I realized, I should have done eight years ago. The office was empty, as one would expect. The security cameras probably captured becoming footage of my lone figure walking down the seventh floor hallway and throwing open the door to my private office.
Then I climbed over the desk and let my arms dangle in the space between the desk and the wall. Each of the connections was there. I unplugged the power, the network cable, the printer cables, the Ethernet, and everything that allowed the world at large to stay connected to the computer in my office. When all the connections were pulled, I lifted the computer up and hid it in a safe place.
The emails and social media of several prior weeks had gradually convinced me. The urban legends about employers spying on employees were not paranoid fantasy. It had become clear to me that someone had been going through the documents on my computer and hacked into my personal email accounts through the desktop at work. Someone must have physically entered my office, having obtained the key from staff, or gotten into the hard drive through the network cables. For years the coincidences had been too numerous and bizarre. For a while, though, I didn't have proof.
In dozens of articles I had joked about the tribulations of a conservative professor in left-wing academia, but there was nothing funny about my life anymore. Someone within the university was leaking personal details from my personal email (not the university email) to people off campus. The door to my office still, after six years, bore the deep grooves left when someone dug a sharp blade through the wood to deface my Army stickers. The vandalism had been hidden for a number of years behind posters, but in the time since, some of my posters had been ripped or disfigured as well. People had slipped menacing Bible verses about repenting and preparing for the apocalypse under my door. Then there were the barrages of obscene phone calls, emails calling me "vendido" and asshole, and the vandals who tore my American flag.
By now I had gone through several rounds of "investigations" because of frivolous student complaints, including charges that I "had erections while teaching," called Helen of Troy "promiscuous," and said that liberals were "nutjobs." The epic Title IX tribunal over my conference at the Reagan Presidential Library is still now, to this day, open and undecided after 600 days. The case was based on a gay student claiming he had a nervous breakdown because of anti-gay "targeting" at the Reagan Library and a woman who claimed I did not nominate her for an award because she alleged that the five female speakers at the Reagan Library were "anti-female."
By 2014 I could no longer trust any of my students. I was teaching like a robot: come in, hook up the laptop, give one of my canned lectures, tell the jokes at all the right junctures, try not to screw up, and get out before students can get into any unsupervised conversations. I had an inkling which of my colleagues were planting students in my class to annoy me – at first I thought I was crazy to suspect it – but when it was clear that most of the people lodging weird complaints had the same few professors as mentors, I knew that there were no real coincidences anymore. You don't try to guess who the snipers are; just assume they are all out to get you, and never get close.
I stopped providing comments on papers. I stopped accepting papers as hard copies and received them only through the online portal, so there would be a digital record. No more arguments. If students want to write a paper claiming that James Baldwin was braver than Malcolm X because Baldwin moved to Paris and had gay lovers, fine. Want to write a paper about how Anne Bradstreet was really a feminist who hated Christianity? Sure, why not? Go for it. No more bonding with students coming into my office saying, "I am a Christian who admires your work, and I want to say, it's so great to have you as a teacher." Some of those heart-to-heart visitors were real, but others were fake, and the fake ones have made it impossible for me to help the real ones.
Keep the office door barely ajar if nobody's coming for office hours. Open it wide if someone's in there. Don't be personal, make it brief, thank them, and then close the door as they leave.
What am I hoping for, a corroborating witness? My colleagues are just as likely to make up stories about me as my students. In the last two weeks, I obtained proof that other professors (the lefties, of course) were spreading rumors that I was a CIA operative engaged in "government-backed agitation," I threatened to jump off a tower and kill myself, I stole a computer, and I was "racially profiling" students in the blind-copy section of an email. (How you "racially profile" people in a blind-copy section containing white, black, Asian, and Latino recipients is really a curious mystery. But there you have it.)
Every single colleague who was nice to me turned out to be luring me into traps of one kind or another. I arrived in 2008 and thought they would be okay with me hanging one McCain-Palin sign, just a tiny little one, on a bulletin board inside my office. But the cost of that one little sign was dear indeed.
I drove them insane. They tried to make me crazy, but somehow just by coming to work each day and not converting to their cause or crumpling up in a ball of tears, I incited a powerful instinct in them: the instinct to hunt down the enemy.
What leads grown adults with Ph.D.s to stand before an office door and drag a sharp blade – was it an awl or a screwdriver? – over someone else's Army stickers while he is on military leave? In eight years I lunched with colleagues a total of five or six times and never had conversations with the rest. The people in that department had never listened to my speeches, read my work, or spoken to me at length. They knew absolutely nothing about me. How can you not know someone and yet be completely okay with telling all the Latino students that he's a CIA agent who has been sent by the government to do mean things he learned at the School of the Americas?
They wouldn't let me speak at meetings. Every time I posted anything on the listserv, no matter how short or long, how opinionated or neutral, somebody would complain, and I'd have to worry about payback during peer review. They wouldn't promote my work in the department newsletter, made a point to sabotage any students who chose me as a mentor, and kept me off all the important committees.
It was not long before I decided to strike a devil's bargain with my peers – you do your thing and leave me alone. I will find money and research projects that have nothing to do with campus and won't taint liberal colleagues with the dreaded fear of complicity with the Koch Brothers (just kidding – I've never done anything with the Koch Brothers, regardless of what they say about me). But they couldn't even let me do my thing and be left alone.
It was when I tried to go my own way that the most Lopez-obsessed parties on campus started ginning up the worst of the student complaints. It was as if they could be happy only if they knew that I was being tortured by bureaucratic sadists somewhere in the state university's catacombs.
The administration turned against me as the weight of outside pressure and constant pestering from the faculty proved too much. The provost who was favorable to me left, and a new pharaoh came who did not know Joseph. Within days of his being sworn in, my enemies were gleefully preparing new complaints that would have to cross his desk. A call came from my dean, someone I had scrupulously avoided dealing with, in September 2015. She said she was forcing me to be on the college personnel committee with four people I had ample reason to fear. I tried to get off the committee, but the dean insisted that this was routine procedure and I had no right to refuse service on it. As if by clockwork, within six months there were he-said-she-said accusations against me, and I was stuck in endless conferrals again.
By the time a Chicano activist leaked an email revealing that one of my colleagues in English was still obsessed with convincing others I was part of the CIA, my sense of humor had dried up. Student organizations with hundreds of members were included on the distribution list. The emissary to Chicano Studies who'd brought the alleged information about my spy status was not a Chicano studies major, but a grad student in English who'd gotten a high-profile award. I had never met him once, but he felt at ease inciting untold numbers of irascible militants that I was a deceitful enemy who could not be trusted in any way. I didn't want police to escort me at my job. But that was how it ended up.
As the olive in my martini, a professor sent me links to homosexual pornography secretly embedded in a heated email chain. I am so lucky not to have clicked on the hyperlink. At least some of my better instincts are still sharp.
I stood on my desk on that Saturday night and realized: I don't have to live like this.
Not long afterward, I closed out the year with a lecture on Thoreau and Whitman and told my students, "This is my last time teaching here. I leave you with three lessons as young writers, which you should never forget.
"First, you will never become famous for the work you wanted everyone to read; it will be something you never expected and often something you didn't want to be famous for.
"Second, when your writing gets attention, own it. Someone out there feels as you do, and you can't get scared, for their sake.
"Third, when you leave the university, there is no reward for nuance. People draw lines and stick to them. Almost any viewpoint you have is polarizing. You have to survive. So when there are two sides fighting with each other and you're caught in the middle, get out of the middle. Pick the side that's protecting you, and stay away from the side that's attacking you – they can't be trusted."
With that, I left campus. Some students wanted to speak to me as I walked out, but I raced past them and down the steps leading to a side courtyard. I unfurled my tie and slowly unbuttoned my shirt so I could walk in my undershirt, blending in with the young Mexicans of Los Angeles. After a few moments I looked at my feet and realized I was running. I was literally fleeing, like a refugee. And Lot's wife popped into my mind.
Don't look back.
The left is toxic. Freedom is sweet. Between tenure and happiness...farewell, liberal academia.